Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Kate Goodrich and Mellany Robinson, Scarecrows

As I walked out one summer's morn'
Saw a scarecrow tied to a pole in a field of corn.
His coat was black, and his head was bare,
When the wind shook him the crows took up into the air.
- Lal & Mike Waterson, 1972

These lyrics from 'Scarecrow', from The Waterson's seminal album, Bright Phoebus, perfectly capture the unease of being confronted with a scarecrow standing alone in a large field. The effect is disconcerting: a human figure in the midst of uninhabited, open country. It feels wrong, misplaced in our modern world where human presence makes itself known nearly everywhere, particularly on this small island. Scarecrows bring the uncanny to the pastoral landscape, a fact not lost on the many artists, authors, poets and filmmakers who have used the scarecrow in their work.

Of course, the very presence of a scarecrow on the land is evidence of human intervention. It is also an example of human ingenuity, using items already owned to create something new and, despite their strange appearance, with a real purpose. Protecting crops when your livelihood depends on it is no game and farmers throughout the years have attempted to invent the most effective deterrent for pests. Modern bird scaring devices rely on such items as gas-propelled warning shots, or the employment of old CDs to reflect the light and cause birds to become disoriented.

The effectiveness of the old-fashioned scarecrow and, indeed, the effectiveness of scaring off birds which eat far more destructive crop-destroying pests are long-disputed. However, there is a tradition of scarecrows in Britain, reinforced by the various instances of it within literature and regional dialect.
The difference in regional names given to scarecrows are testament to its appearance across the country and its long-standing existence as an object and presence in everyday rural life:
Mawkin – Norfolk (a ‘mawkin’ in Gloucestershire also means ‘mop head’ which makes a visual connection with the construction of a scarecrow)
Hodmahod/hodmedod – Berkshire, Hampshire (although there is a town in Norfolk called Hodmedod and in Norfolk dialect it also means small, curled up – it is given as a colloquial name to hedgehogs. Again, there may be some connection with hedgehogs nesting in scarecrows)

Mammet – Yorks, Lincs
Marmet – Devon
Mommet – Somerset, Warwickshire, Worcs.

All of these three terms have their origins in the Anglo-Norman ‘maumet’ (short for Mahumet/Muhammad). 

In old English this was translated as false idol, a doll/poppet or lifeless figure [source: Wiktionary]
Tattie bogle/bogle – Scotland/Northumbria which meant ghost, with a folktale constructed around the character of Tatty Bogle, a spirit who would hide in potato fields (‘tatties’) and frighten people or cause potato blight. A poem by the Scottish writer, W D Cocker, published in 1932 spoke of the Bogle being heard in the wind: ‘(to) fricht wee weans’
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, the term is used in jest to describe a character as ‘The scarecrow that affrights our children so’ which draws on the original meaning of the word, as something which is frightening but harmless.

Theories as to the scarecrow’s origins vary, with some suggestion that the concept of placing a static figure in a field of crops was inspired by Greek mythology and specifically, Priapos, the protector of farmers, shepherds, fishermen, vine growers, beekeepers and goatherds. Depicted with a cornucopia, pruning knife and enlarged phallus, Priapos was a figure of fertility and abundance, so his association with crops was considered to be auspicious.  This theory is further reinforced by the text ‘De de Rustica’ (c.65AD), which recommended that a figure of the god should be hewn from a tree stump close to crops to help a good harvest.[1]

Despite modern developments in bird-scaring methods, in some corners of the countryside scarecrows flourish. In particular, the East of England, with its flat, wide landscape stretching to the sea. The scarecrows photographed by Kate Goodrich in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk appear as if sentinels of the land, protecting more than the crops themselves; rather, as totemic symbols of ownership and territory.
Perhaps, in part, this is where our ambiguous feelings about scarecrows lay - echoes of a time where bodies were strung up on posts, or left hanging in the gibbet, as a warning to would be ne'er do wells. There are also claims that the Celts would construct wicker men with human sacrifices secreted inside which would be burnt whole on sacred days. This practice has been widely discredited as Roman propaganda, its origins in the texts of Strabo (c. 63BC - 24AD), who wrote about the Druid’s ritual of making human and animal sacrifices to ensure a good crop. [2]A modern interpretation is the guy on Bonfire Night or the caricatures constructed by the Bonfire Society of Lewes which are ritually burnt on every November the fifth.

The connection between scarecrows and death can also be made through the similarities between an effigy and a scarecrow. Effigies were created as representations of real people, with wax or wooden likenesses dressed in the deceased's actual clothes. The scarecrow is often constructed using old clothes, and the superstitious belief that a person’s belongings are imbued with their spirit is one that holds fast. Encountering a scarecrow dressed in dead men’s clothes is a sobering experience, the scarecrow is a memento mori, reminding us that we all become hollow men in the end.

Scarecrow Festivals, a relatively modern invention, are becoming increasingly popular around the country, with dedicated websites and photostreams.  They can be interpreted as an example of appropriation and commemoration - where scarecrows are no longer used so extensively in modern farming, the need to reference this tradition lives on. Often this impulse is the driving force behind many folk traditions, with roots in practices from long ago adapted to have relevance in the present.

From Katie Price and Stephen Fry depicted at one celebrity-themed festival in Norfolk, to ‘scarecrows in literature’ in one English village, the widespread scarecrow festivals often use  popular culture as a theme. The scarecrow itself has also long been part of popular culture, employed by authors and film-makers, often as a macabre character, such as Doctor Syn written by Russell Thorndike, adapted later as a Disney TV series and aired in 1964.
 ‘The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh’ starred Patrick McGoohan as a priest by day and a character disguised as a scarecrow, by night, fighting for farmers rights! It has also been featured in horror films, such as the British-made ‘Scarecrow’ (1972) which was the story of a desperate Irish farmer driven to madness. In more recent times, some people have established themselves as professional scarecrow-makers, offering classes and bespoke figures: the scarecrow elevated to craft object, like a thrown pot or handmade jewellery.[3]

These examples of scarecrows are more mediated than the objects featured in Kate Goodrich’s series. Her subjects run the gamut of high and low art: inspiring comparisons with the surrealist Hans Bellmer and his ‘La Poupee’ series, to the poppets and voodoo dolls created by ‘ordinary’ folk to activate curses. Some of her subjects have something comic in their countenance, overstuffed and blown up big girls blouses (literally), whilst others have an air of pathos: lonely and weather-beaten in these isolated places.

Goodrich has carefully captured the characters of each scarecrow in her portraits. From the knight, sword held aloft (with the help of a stick for support), the trusty defender of the realm; to a curious specimen of an Edwardian lady who has lost her way in a field of brassicas; to the Victorian city gent, replete with bowler hat, cane and bespoke suit. There is macabre humour in the shop mannequin, body flung forward in exhaustion from its hours spent guarding crops, and the forlorn figure of a scarecrow bound to a post, head dangling lifeless, in the suggestion of a witch at the stake. Then there’s the brave pioneer, hands by its side with its face to the east winds, confronting the world with fortitude.

Whilst modern attempts at bird scaring (a variation on the pre-Industrial Revolution habit of employing small children to run about the fields hollering and with wooden rattles), may be more effective than the mute, immobile traditional scarecrow; there is obviously a desire to create these straw-stuffed guardians, as these photographs attest.

H Rider Haggard, writing in ‘A Farmer’s Year’ (1898) lamented:
‘...the mawkin nowadays is a poor creature compared with what he used to be, and it is a wonder that any experienced rook consents to be scared by him. Thirty years or so ago, he really was a work of art, with a hat, a coat, a stick and sometimes a painted face, ferocious enough to frighten a little boy in the twilight let alone a bird. Now a rag or two and a jumblesale cloth cap are considered sufficient, backed up...[by] a dead rook tied up by the leg to a stick...’[4]
Goodrich’s scarecrows may well be made from remnants of clothing, plastic sheeting and other found materials but nevertheless have been constructed with care and attention to detail to create a significant presence in the empty landscapes of the fens and beyond.
Embodying the potency of the human form, scarecrows encourage anthropomorphism. We project this worldview onto animals, believing that, they too, will be spooked by the sight of a ‘human’ in a field. More often than not, this idea is scuppered by the sight of birds perched or nesting in a scarecrow - ever opportunistic Nature.
Scarecrows can be considered as true folk objects: made from pre-existing items and re-formed without recourse to design, to create something new, whilst reinforcing old traditions in the process. Made by a farmer, or his family from old clothes, stuffed with straw or other such material to create the most human-looking shape possible, dressed, accessorised and finally, hoisted up, often in a cruciform shape, the scarecrow becomes an icon, watching over the fields in silent repose.
These portraits represent the enduring image of the scarecrow in country life and are a fitting tribute to those lonely guardians of the fields.

All images (c) Kate Goodrich
Text by Mellany Robinson

[1] From: ‘Scarecrows’ , Gregory Holyoake (Unicorn Press, 2006), p.14
[2] Ibid, p.15
[3] Ibid, p. 216
[4] Ibid, p.30

Friday, 11 April 2014

Curating as Storytelling

Folkloric traditions have historically been the means by which ordinary people have been able to establish a connection with the world around them. Archaically, they functioned as a way to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable forces of nature and offered a means of both counsel and remembrance. Oral traditions, and story telling in particular, gave communities a tool to help retain myths and legends, educate their members in certain skills and trades, and offer moral guidance. In contrast to a printed book, the spoken story has the capacity to be moulded around the concerns and interests of its audience. While fixed narratives were often maintained, storytellers might adopt a regional dialect, address a particular local issue or simply apply a new perspective to each tale according to the concerns of his or her listeners. The tools that are fundamental to oral recitation, such as gesture, speed, intonation, accent, and dramatisation, lend the tales that are told a malleable quality. Through accent inflection, break and breath, each story readily embraces and nurtures the mystical, the impossible and the anarchic, and presents a living and vibrant continuum for the passing along of knowledge. Walter Benjamin and Bob Bushaway have written extensively about oral traditions and have charted their gradual disappearance from everyday modern life. They cite the decline in the valuation of first hand experience, the proliferation of the printed novel, the celebration of the solitary writer and the dawn of industrialisation as contributing factors. They also highlight the tendency of oral traditions to thrive among the working classes and are both acutely aware of the way in which story telling has suffered from derision from the upper echelons of society. The presumption that spoken word might signal illiteracy has fuelled the assertion that the printed word is inherently superior. Bushaway notes the way in which ‘those outside the nexus of local discourse mistook silence for ignorance and miscomprehended dialect for simplicity’.

The opposition between oral traditions and printed text has a parallel in the visual arts. With the dominion of modernism still lingering and the authority of the white cube in tact, it is clear that the presentation of art works within a context where time and space is erased is still favoured practice amidst the major commercial galleries and international institutions. The white cube schema lends a primacy to its contents that is often absent for works that arise from community projects, artist run initiatives and grass roots collectives. A method of undermining this culture might be to integrate the characteristics of story telling and oral traditions into modes of exhibition display. Rather than treating art works as fixed texts and presenting them in alienating and reverential settings, exhibitions should be the means by which artworks can be activated.

In 2013, Iris van Herpen collaborated with SHOWstudio on a project that embraced these very ideas and culminated in an exhibition. Generated through a series of interconnected events and stages that sequentially informed one another, the project saw van Herpen collaborate with Nick Knight and Daphne Guinness to create a ‘Crystallization Dress’- a garment that resembles a splash of water wrapping itself around the body. Through the project, van Herpen investigated our connection with water on a number of levels and created a project drenched in the mystical and magical make up of folklore.

The project was initiated with an elaborate fashion shoot that would determine the design of the dress. Daphne Guinness was cast as the heroine, taking up a statuesque pose on top of a high plinth completely naked except for a pair of Noritaka Tatehana heels and some diamond earrings. She was then splashed with two pails of water simultaneously, one of which had been coloured black and the other remaining transparent. Nick Knight captured the movement of the water as it traced its way around Guinness’ body on four high-speed cameras that were strategically located  around the central plinth. This process was repeated multiple times with each splash manifesting itself in a different way. 

Courtesy of Nick Knight and SHOWstudio

The resulting footage captured the movement of the water in its many guises, from transparent streaks that seemed held together by mere particles, to the bubbling rush as a spray broke apart into thousands of pieces. Each momentary splash was captured at a rate of 4,000 frames per second enabling an incredible degree of detail to be established. Van Herpen and Knight then selected one still from the thousands that were acquired, which in turn would serve as the pattern for the piece. This was a laborious process of examining each individual splash to find a design that appeared visually beautiful, yet also had a structure that could be sculpted and essentially, be worn. Eventually they chose a particular frame that already bore a striking resemblance to a dress. The water had broken at Guinness’ waist to create the effect of a full skirt while also climbing upward to give the silhouette of a high collar. The black and transparent liquids had also maintained some autonomy, giving the effect of colour panelling. This initial process functioned as an exploration of a natural element and granted a means of engaging with it very closely. It was an attempt to capture and impose some understanding on the behaviour of the water, while simultaneously embracing its affinity with chaos, and its refusal to be controlled. This initial venture served as the starting point for each of the subsequent stages that followed.

Courtesy of Nick Knight and SHOWstudio

 Once the frame for the dress had been selected, SHOWstudio began a live, seven day online stream that would document and broadcast the entire process of making the dress. A global audience could watch in real time as van Herpen constructed the garment by heating and moulding sheets of PET G plastic, a transparent acrylic. From moments of tumultuous activity, to the quiet minutes van Herpen spent just looking at her newest design, SHOWstudio revealed the designers practice on a very intimate level and literally embedded in the flow of time. 

Courtesy of Nick Knight and SHOWstudio

During the broadcast, anyone with access to the internet could not only watch van Herpen at work, but could also put questions to her via a submissions page. In her answers, van Herpen revealed the materials and tools she used, specific crafts she has mastered and the development of her business model while also sharing more personal details such as the books that have been of influence to her, the location of her studio by a river and the fact that her grandmother has an awe inspiring archive of garments. The broadcast resonated with the characteristics of storytelling on a number of levels, particularly in Benjamin’s advocation that oral traditions often served as a means to pass along something inherently useful within a community. In documenting, sharing and literally conversing with their audience, van Herpen and SHOWstudio not only created a beautiful artefact, but also gave a thorough demonstration of a particular craft. But in contrast to Benjamin and Bushaway’s descriptions of communities being primarily determined by physical proximity, the demonstration was shared with an audience defined by a digital locality and a common interest. The technologies they employ have meant that the global can become local and geographical distances are diminished. Regardless of regional or national borders, this community had a common means of communication and a way to share advice, stories, visuals and experiences.

Community and collaboration were also crucial to the realisation of the project, and each aspect of the creative process was pushed to its fullest conclusion from every angle. Artists Geoffrey Lillemon and Salvador Breed joined Nick Knight and Iris van Herpen during the shoot of Daphne Guinness in order to make use of the various visuals and audio that was captured. Lillemon was charged with editing a fashion film from the high speed camera footage, and Breed would create a soundscape from recordings of the splashes of water to accompany it. Titled ‘Sonomorphic Mirror’, the resulting film was posted online in a collection that housed each of the various aspects of the project. Allowing viewers to engage with these peripheral elements contributes to what Benjamin describes as the ‘slow piling on top of the other of thin transparent layers, which constitutes the most appropriate picture of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed.’ This is exactly what SHOWstudio encourages by employing such a developmental, repetitive approach. The work produced is able to enter into a certain circularity where any sense of meaning being fixed or stagnant might be eluded. By introducing elements of the mystical, the visceral and the unfinished, spectators were engaged in an active experience in which they had a role in completing and relaying the project. Benjamin noted

‘For story telling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more waving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to… When the rhythm of the work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled.’

For the project’s conclusion, Daphne Guinness donned the completed Crystallization dress and was photographed by Nick Knight for a series of surreal black and white images. The dress appears in one instance like the original splash impact and in others as an entity in itself, rigid and ephemeral all at once. Much of the joy in the piece is apparent in its wearability. While not the most practical of garments, there is potential for the dress to be worn and become a part of another story, this time a personal history. It has the capability for memory to become attached to it, both for the wearer, and those who encounter it being worn and induces the kind of spectacle that cannot resist re-telling.

Courtesy of Nick Knight and SHOWstudio

Finally the dress was exhibited as part of SHOWstudio’s gallery venture, the SHOWcabinet. Built to reflect SHOWstudio’s online archive of creative projects, the exhibitions use the idea of a curiosity cabinet or wunderkammer as a framework. The aim is to illuminate the practices of the exhibitors by creating installations that shed some light on the influences and inspirations for their works of art or fashion pieces. In van Herpen’s work, fashion, science, art and technology are not separate subjects, but flow from a single source and so the works that accompanied the dress in the cabinet also made leaps to break down the divisions between disciplines. The exhibition functioned as a visual essay that unpicked van Herpen’s practice aesthetically and was supported by the various online and filmic content that was generated through the various stages of the making process. The installation resisted any simplistic or prescriptive readings by allowing itself to be encountered from a variety of perspectives. It gave access to the artifact from the moment of conception to completion as well as sharing all of the peripheral activity in between.

Integrating the attributes of oral traditions and spoken word into curatorial practice is a means by which to push back against the frequently sterilising nature of the white cube. This project could be read as a performance, an improvisation, or a developmental process through which the art object can be allowed to reverberate in its wider context. It was staged as a living and breathing entity that can continue to be constantly experienced and interpreted. At its most idealistic, community driven and collaborative ventures like this project can serve to empower community members to engage with their cultural environment, filling them with beautiful objects, diverse people and innovative ideas.

Niamh White
Niamh White, Associate Director of SHOWstudio and curator of the 'Splash' project with Iris van Herpen, Nick Knight and Daphne Guinness

Many thanks to Niamh White at SHOWStudio, Nick Knight and Iris van Herpen.
For more information, visit: www.showstudio.com the home of fashion film


Benjamin, Walter [1936] (1999) ‘The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nickolai Leskov’ in Illuminations Walter Benjamin, Pimlico, Great Britain. pp-83-108

Bushaway, Bob (2002) ‘Things said or sung a thousand times’: customary society and oral culture in rural England 1700-1900’ in The Spoken Word, Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850 Adam Fox and Daniel Woolf (eds) Manchester University Press, Manchester. pp 240-256

Ferguson Bruce W (1996) ‘Exhibition Rhetorics, Material Speech and Utter Sense’. in Greenberg Reesa, Ferguson Bruce. W., Nairne, Sandy (eds) Thinking about Exhibitions Routledge New York. pp- 180-201

O Doherty, Brian (1976) Inside the White Cube- The Ideology of the White Cube, Expanded Edition University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Ong, Walter J (1982) Orality and Literacy The Technologizing of the Word, Methuen and Co Ltd, New York.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

We are delighted to present here the first entry in our 21st Century Folk Culture initiative. These extraordinary images were taken of the Saddleworth Rushcart festival in 2013 by the photographer, Bob France. All text by Bob France.

The Rushbearers

The Rushcart tradition, derives from Rogationtide. A medieval practice in which parishioners would process around the parish once a year, bearing rushes. They would arrive at the parish church and place the rushes on the floor of the church, to replace worn-out rushes. In modern times the ceremony is practised only in parts of northern England.Saddleworth is a valley in the Pennine hills between Manchester and Leeds.

Rushcarts are an old tradition in the region, but died out in the early 20th Century. In 1975, the Saddleworth men again built a cart, and one has been built each August since.

Bob France 2013

Saddleworth Morris produce an authentic rushcart which is made completely of rushes as opposed to one built onto a underlying framework. This means that many more rushes have to be collected. Approximately 720 bundles.

The rushes are collected over a period of two to three weeks in all weathers with the men often up to their waists in stagnant water.

Traditional tools are used to cut the rushes.

Each member goes up on to the moors whenever he has time to ensure there are enough. Everybody does their bit, the ethos being that everybody eventually gets a turn at being jockey so nobody evades their responsibility to collect he rushes for the cart.

"How can you expect  to have a good cart to sit on if you didn't do your bit for others' carts in the past."

Where once members would all have worked in the local mills they are now from a diverse range of backgrounds.

The rushes are stored on the moor until the cart is ready to be built.

A week before the big day the construction of the cart  commences in the yard of the Commercial Inn in Uppermill.

The rushes must be trimmed to give a neat edge and the bundles tightened.

The bundled rushes, ready to go onto the cart.

Only a handful of people have the knowledge to build an authentic Rushcart.

Saturday Morning and the "Molly" (dame) from Moulton Morris Men looks on at the finished cart.

The cart itself has been restored and rebuilt many times. So much so that it is said that just one wheel hub remains original.

When completed the Ruschcart is 13 feet high and weighs two tons. It has been maintained through the kind help and donation of the community and Rushcart supporters.

On the first day of the Rushcart procession the cart is trimmed with heather and the completed banner is hung.

The banner is made by the man whose turn it is to be the Jockey and its theme is kept a secret until the morning of the first day of the Rushcart weekend.

The 2013 banner was made by Arron Daniels and commemorates the life of PC Nicola Hughes, a local Police Constable whom, along with her colleague Fiona Bone, was tragically killed in the line of duty.

The Rushcart is brought out from behind the Commercial Inn.

There is a palpable tension as the men of Saddleworth Morris form up into two lines ready to meet the crowds.

For the first time the Jockey takes his position on the Rushcart between two Rowan branches and is passed a kettle in which he carries ale for the journey ahead.

The Rushcart is pulled through the use of wooden poles called 'stangs' which are threaded through ropes. There are over 100 men pulling the cart.

On the first day of the Rushcart the cart travels nine miles passing through the villages of Greenfied, Uppermill, Delph, Dobcross and eventually returning to Uppermill.

At each village groups from the 100 strong team of dancers, who pull the cart, show off their own unique dances.

The Rushcart pauses at the village of Dobcross.

Tired feet are given a rest whilst wooden clogs are repaired.

Saddleworth is hilly terrain and even with 100 men, pulling a 2 ton cart is a hard task.

The Jockey's Kettle is refilled with ale.

Saddleworth Morris is aided in pulling the cart by over 100 volounteers from all over the UK and sometimes abroad.

The role of Jockey is an honour amongst the team and is decided based on who has danced the longest and not yet ridden the cart. This generally means a wait of eleven years.

An honour not without perils as many low trees are encountered en route.

The long day over the men return to to Uppermill and the cart to its home at the Commercial Inn.

Sunday Morning the longprocession pulls the cart a mile uphill along Church Road to Saint Chad's Church.

This year they are assisted in the task by the Director of the Museum Of British Folklore's very own Simon Costin.

The procession finally descends towards the Church.

The Jockey dismounts the cart for the final time.

The Rushcart is carefully manoeuvred into position.

The Rushcart has reached its destination.

The service in the Church commences.

All the banners from the previous Rushcarts decorate the inside of the church.

With the service completed a day of dancing (plus gurning and wrestling competitions) ensues.

 At the end of the day the men of Saddleworth Morris perform their dances non-stop 30 minute session.

With the intense dance session over, duties to the Rushcart are also over for another year and congratulations are shared by all.

Richard Hankinson, Squire of Saddleworth Morris Men.

Ed Worrall, Rushcart Secretary.

The Rushes and other herbs have been laid and fragrant scent spreads throughout the church.

Saddleworth Morris 2013.

Bob France is a Manchester (UK) based photographer, working almost exclusively with medium format film cameras. More of his work can be seen at www.bobfrance.com